The idea of a separate Tamil nation is not dead in Sri Lanka, thats what this Thelka journolist has to say,.Disguised as a tourist, Revati Laul travelled through the country’s most war-ravaged districts. She spotlights a story that is rarely told.
There was a time when this was espoused with brutal violence by the dreaded LTTE. That violence has been leached out now to be replaced by a kind of limitless — and perhaps more potent — despair. There are reasons why the idea of a separate Tamil nation refuses to die.
The chilling story of the LTTE and its lethal suicide bombers is well-known. The horrific retaliatory killing of its cadres and thousands of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan Army towards the end of the war is also now an emerging story. But this is a report on the silent war that continues till this day against the Tamils, an insidious and systematic violence they call a “structural genocide”.
There are two overriding images that greet you when you drive from the peacock- blue-themed Bandaranaike International Airport into Colombo city. Giant cutouts of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, beaming, arms outstretched to bless the people; and statues of the Buddha. For tourists, who are pouring in swelling numbers into Sri Lanka, the 30-year civil war was definitively finished in 2009. Sri Lanka is back to being an idyllic island of peace; the LTTE has been exterminated. There is, in fact, a shiny triumphalism in the air to match the new Buddhist statues smiling at you from every street corner. However, at the other end, far away from Colombo, the army is still out on every street.
Four years after the civil war ended, the Vanni — a small forested stretch of land in the north, held by the LTTE till their chief V Prabhakaran was killed by the army in 2009 — is nothing but a slice of scarred earth. A smooth post-war spruced-up highway from Jaffna town speeds to the four districts in the Vanni: Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. The military presence here rises sharply. Uniformed men, covered waist-high in plastic sheets, are clearing landmines on either side of the road. Red skull and crossbow signs everywhere ask you to be careful.
The silence of the Tamils is deafening as you reach the last mile of the war — a village called Mullivaikal in Mullaitivu. In 2009, as the LTTE was pushed back by an advancing Sri Lankan Army, 3 lakh Tamils collected in this village to escape the mortar shells and bullets raining from the sky. This is the village where Channel 4 videos show Sri Lankan soldiers stomping on the naked breasts of a dead LTTE woman; where carcasses were piled in heaps as Tamil civilians were caught the crossfire of the Sri Lankan Army and a dwindling but still combative LTTE guerrilla force.
Civilians were trained by the LTTE
Journalists are still not welcome in these parts; we are there masquerading as tourists. Although the heaped bodies are now gone, the hollowed-out sand bunkers where people ducked the bullets and mortars are still there. The torn remains of what was once a purple sari. The plastic remains of a TV set. An open suitcase. Even a bunch of white plastic roses. And, in the midst of these torn-out buildings, pockmarked with bullet holes, the odd family. Trying to live in the land of the dead.
It is impossible to speak with them. As we step out of our van, we are ordered out of the area by two men in military uniform. They follow us on their bike for some distance.
Nearby, a ship that was once carrying 2,000 tonnes of paddy, lies rusted on a beach. The date of its capture by the Sri Lankan Army is painted on its body in Sinhala to drive home the point. It’s now a tourist spot for a busload of visiting Buddhist monks in bright orange robes.
With the war over, things have gone back to usual. Contrary to Rajapaksa’s famed 13th amendment, promising autonomy to the provincial councils in the north for the Tamils, this means a return to State policies from the 1950s that systematically and deliberately excluded them from cultivable farmland and prime fishing waters. The exclusion that sparked the Tamil resistance and war in the first place is back with a bang.
In Mullaitivu, a few streets away from the rubble, 53-year-old Thurairasa Ravikaran — once the head of the district fishermen’s union — points proudly at his chocolate-and-yellow-tiled house. Before the eruption of hostilities, the north was so good for fishing he had built his entire brick house for LKR 4 lakh (Rs 1.73 lakh), earned from the catch of just two prawn seasons. But those days are long gone. The Sri Lankan government, he said, had snatched the sea from the Tamils.
This phenomenon has manifested itself in waves. The first trigger came in 1983 with the anti-Tamil riots called Black July. The fishermen of his village had to leave overnight because of the violence. The exodus led to 300 Sinhalese fishing families moving into the area. According to Sri Lankan law, fishing permits are only given to permanent residents. But the rules were overlooked for the Sinhala fishermen. These fishermen used large trawlers with high-voltage search methods that Ravikaran claims are illegal to employ in the shallow waters of the north. This turned the fishing economy on its head. The Sinhalese fishermen with their big trawlers scooped out all the fish, leaving practically nothing for the Tamil fishermen. It reduced their income from an average of LKR 5,000 a day to LKR 500. The LTTE domination of the area provided some reprieve. But now, according to Ravikaran, the area domination by Sinhalese fishermen has begun again. “Coming back here is like living in a cemetery,” he says. “Our livelihood is completely destroyed.”
It seems this phenomenon is repeating itself in fishing villages across the region. As journalists are not officially welcome, it is impossible to independently verify Ravikaran’s claims.
Ground Views, a Colombo-based civil society group, however, published a report in March 2012 that said, “The fishing industry, one of the main sources of livelihood of a large number of people in the Jaffna Peninsula, was severely affected by 30 years of ethnic civil war.” According to this report, before the war, Jaffna was the largest fishing production district in Sri Lanka. Prior to 1983, it contributed about 48,000 metric tonnes per year, one fourth of total national production. By the end of the third Eelam war, this was reduced to 3-5 percent.
The report goes on to say, “Severe restrictions have been placed on members of the Tamil fishing communities, resulting in a drastic impact on their means of livelihood…” Disturbingly, it adds, “several Sinhala fishermen in the area have received direct permission to fish in this area from the Ministry of Defence.”
TRINCOMALEE IN the east, a long and beautiful stretch of coastline once held by the LTTE, is now back on the tourist map after it was recaptured by the army in 2006. But Trincomalee is overrun with soldiers at every street corner. Every passenger on every incoming bus to the north and east is checked by the military. Every time you board a bus, you have to write your contact numbers, purpose of visit and passport details.
A report in the Economic and Political Weekly on 14 July 2012 claimed the ratio of army to civilians in these parts is as high as 1:5. If that’s true, it’s at least four times more than the troops on ground in Afghanistan where a war is still on. Sri Lankan Army spokesperson Brigadier Ruwan Wannigasooriya calls the figures preposterous. According to him, not more than 6,000 personnel are deployed in Trincomalee. For instance, the reason they check each bus, he says, is “in case former LTTE cadre are carrying weapons on them”.
In Thennavanmarapuady, an ancient Tamil village in Trincomalee, the underlying reasons for the seemingly irreparable hostility between Tamils and Sinhalese becomes even more apparent. The village traces its antecedents to the 9th century, when a Pandian king conquered the area. The Pandian dynasty ruled large parts of Tamil territory in ancient India and northern Sri Lanka. In the 1980s, this land became the theatre of conflict between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. Its people, therefore, fled to a camp in Mullaitivu in the north. From here too, they moved many times; some fled to India.
After the civil war ended in 2009, these farmers wanted to return to their homes and the 1,200 acres of paddy fields they had left two decades earlier. After many difficult rounds of negotiation with the local government, families began to get permits to come back in batches. But they returned to find their land overrun by the army. Nearly 150 families are back in the area now but they live in temporary camps built by the UNHRC in 2011. Instead of 1,200 acres, they are now collectively left with a mere 150 acres to cultivate. An additional 150 acres is now occupied by Sinhalese farmers. Complaints to the police have led nowhere. The head of the society they have formed has written directly to President Rajapaksa as well as every bureaucrat in between, to no avail. A farming community that, at the time of fleeing their land in 1984, made the equivalent of LKR 50,000 a month now earns not more than LKR 2,000, which for a war-inflated economy is barely subsistence level.
In another camp in the east — local guides did not wish it to be identified — a frail 53-year-old woman stepped out of her mud hut to greet us. She dashed her daughter off to get us a sweet red drink from a store nearby as her eyes slowly shifted to a faraway place. She now lives entirely in the past. Every waking moment is spent thinking of the home they fled in 2006; the two cows she had to sell, named Neerum or water and Neeruppu or fire. “Even if I don’t get back my farmland, I will live with that. All I want, even if it’s just a small hut, is to get back to my homeland,” she said wistfully.
At yet another camp in the north, a fisherman’s eyes brimmed over. Living in a camp for more than 22 years is no life, he said. In the 1990s, he left the camp to live in the Vanni, the LTTE heartland, where he felt protected and thought the Tamils would have a future. Now, at the age of 60, with that dream getting more and more blurred, he confessed, “I think I should just end it all now and walk into the sea.”
The refusal to be named or identified is commonplace among the Tamils. Their fear is palpable.
The Sinhala-Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka makes up 75 percent of the population; the Tamil minority — 32 lakh people — make for 11 percent.
According to the government, most Tamils dislocated by decades of civil war — and the last devastating push by the Sri Lankan Army — have been resettled. But an NGO working with displaced people explains what “resettled” really means. Farmers who once had one-acre plots are “resettled” on pint-sized slices of land measuring 0.125 acres. “It’s part of a State sponsored design to resettle Tamils at below subsistence levels so they can never regroup and fight,” the NGO explains.
Reliable figures for the thousands of people displaced by war and still living in camps are hard to come by. Tamils here say, like everything else, the flow of information is tightly controlled by the government and scripted to suit the story they want the world to hear. The scale of displacement and dispossession, therefore, can only be hazarded from reports like this one, based on patchwork anecdotes from the ground.
The real scale may be missing, but the architecture is clear. Tamil MP Gajendra Ponnambalam describes why the north and the east became the land of the Tamil Eelam; why Tamils in Sri Lanka almost universally supported the idea of a separate nation. His own family history makes for a telling account.
Gajendra’s grandfather, GG Ponnambalam, was an Oxford-educated lawyer and a liberal who, till the 1950s, believed in the idea of a syncretic nation where Tamils and Sinhalese could co-exist. He founded the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. By 1976, however, he had begun to back the idea of a separate nation for the Tamils. Things had begun to curdle as far back as 1956 with the Sinhala Only Act. This replaced English with Sinhala as the State language, to the exclusion of Tamil. This was further exacerbated by tussles over land, fishing rights and proportion of government jobs. In the 1970s, when it became officially mandatory for Tamil students to get 15 marks more than Sinhalese to qualify for university, the ground was laid for the rise of the LTTE. Gajendra’s grandfather eventually lived his last days abroad, broken by the idea of a Lankan nation whose identity was solely Sinhala and Buddhist.
Gajendra’s father, Kumar Ponnambalam or GG Jr as he was known, was educated at Cambridge. He became a lawyer and took on the State for its anti-Tamil stance. He paid for that by being assassinated in 2000. Gajendra — the third-generation lawyer to be educated in England — finally returned to Tamil politics in Sri Lanka. He feels Prabhakaran, despite the many mistakes he made, was the most effective leader the Tamils ever had. The time for political reconciliation with the Sri Lankan government is long over, he says. In 2010, he broke away from the Tamil National Alliance — an umbrella body of Tamil parties — over this issue. “When you face such blatant oppression, you end up focussing fundamentally on what you need to do to keep your identity alive,” he said.
Despite the contemporary devastations the Tamils have faced, the tragic story of chauvinism and racial domination in Sri Lanka is not one-sided. In keeping with the imperial games it played elsewhere, while Sri Lanka was a part of the British Empire, the British clearly favoured and nurtured the Tamils over the Sinhalese.
This meant the Tamils ended up better educated, often returning with degrees from abroad; they had a greater share of the few plum jobs in the colonial civil services; they bought the biggest properties in Colombo.
Rajiva Wijesinha, whose Liberal Party is an integral part of the Sri Lankan government, articulates this alternative side of the history of Sri Lankan discontent. The discriminatory politics that began in the 1950s with the Sinhala Only Act, he says, was really an attempt by the Sri Lankan government to unshackle the country from its colonial past. This is why English was replaced by Sinhala as the official language. “It’s unfortunate that this eventually took on the colour of majoritarianism in the years that followed.” It was corrected, he pointed out, in 1987, when Tamil was included as an official language. But by then, of course, the LTTE had already emerged as a guerilla force to assuage the anger of the Tamils.
BACK IN the north and east, this historical perspective offers no comforts. Sureka (name changed), 31, sits in a quiet backyard overlooking the sea. Her bright yellow frock with its frills and silver buckle contrasted painfully with her adult face and puffy eyes.
“I don’t want to live anymore,” she said. “But if I kill myself, people will think I’m ending it all because I have been raped by the CID or the army and I don’t want that to be the story people carry around after me. So I’m in limbo. I can’t live and I can’t die.”
Sureka was once a regular young girl in a village in the east, but the war between the LTTE and the army caught up with her. It killed her mother, leaving her orphaned. She had no siblings; her father had died a few years earlier. Soon after, soldiers began to turn up at her house regularly to torment her. They poured boiling water on her head once and hit her on the back with sticks. It’s what drove her to join the LTTE in 2000. Prabhakaran was someone she looked up to like an elder brother, she says. For the nine years she was in the LTTE, she was happy. Then in 2009, the war was over. She was back to living alone, but now in a land where the State and army was even more hostile, especially with former members of the LTTE.
A week before we met her, an unknown Sinhalese man had entered Sureka’s home in the dead of night. She shouted and fought and called the police. They took three hours to come and refused to register a complaint. Since she was a former LTTE member, she was just a troublemaker, they allegedly told her. She wonders each night if the man will return.
We met our next contact ducking in a paddy field to avoid his being seen by the rest of his village, potential informers or the army, Easwaran (name changed) displayed his right wrist with two round blotches of raw skin. Evidence, he said, of electrodes inserted to torture him after the war. Like Sureka, Easwaran was orphaned in the 1990s when his parents were killed by the Sri Lankan Army. His father, an electrician, had dared to refuse to work for free for the soldiers. They paid him back by entering his house some days later and killing him and his wife. Easwaran was eight when he saw this happen. He and his two siblings screamed for help but fear had paralysed the neighbours into silence. He joined the LTTE to avenge his parents’ death, he says.
When the LTTE was pushed back from Trincomalee, Easwaran’s past caught up with him and he was arrested. The nightmares from the time he was tortured still continue. “All I wanted is a safe place for Tamils to live,” he now says, fear spreading across his face. He once had three acres; but now he has been living in a refugee camp for the past eight years.
For still others like Vengadesh (name changed), the horror has visited him many times over. He had provided logistics support to the LTTE in the early 1990s. He was picked up by the Sri Lankan Army for this and sent to the infamous Fourth Floor, their version of Abu Ghraib. According to Vengadesh, his head was immersed in petrol fumes; he was strung upside down and suspended from just his two thumbs. He was released eight months later. He married, had children and began what he thought was a regular middle-class life. But when the civil war ended, he was picked up by the military and sent to the Fourth Floor again.(THELKA)